1981 Chevrolet Citation
1981 Chevrolet Citation. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The General Motors compact cars of the 1980s, called X-cars, the Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark, were the corporation’s all-new front-wheel drive models launched in April, 1979 as 1980 models. They were the culmination of a trend that started with the 1966 front-wheel drive Oldsmobile Toronado.

GM had bravely launched a “down-sizing” program for its full-size 1977 cars, followed by smaller intermediates a year later. Then in ’79 it offered less bulky Toronado, Buick Riviera and Cadillac Eldorado luxury coupes.

Front-wheel drive was seen as a more efficient way to build cars. Placing the complete driveline in the front eliminates the traditional large transmission hump and driveshaft tunnel. Positioning the engine transversely, pioneered in the modern era by the brilliant Alec Issigonis with the 1959 Austin/Morris Mini, devoted more of the vehicle’s length to passenger and luggage space. For lightness and strength, unit construction was used, but to overcome noise transmission problems exacerbated by unit bodies, the engine, transaxle and lower suspension arms were carried on a separate cradle bolted to the body. There were MacPherson struts in front, and a beam axle with coil springs at the rear.

The base engine was a 2.5 litre overhead valve inline four of Pontiac origin, formerly known as the “Iron Duke.” Optional was an all-new 2.8 litre overhead-valve 60-degree V-6 designed and built by Chevrolet. The four produced 90 horsepower, and the six, 115, with power reaching the front wheels through a standard four-speed manual transmission, or an optional three-speed automatic.

Although they were 406 mm (16 in.) shorter, at 4,488 mm (176.7 in.), and some 363 kg (800 lb) lighter, at 1,220 kg (2,740 lb) than GM’s next-size-up rear-drive intermediates such as the Chevrolet Malibu, the new X-cars offered virtually identical passenger and luggage space. When these GM front-drive compacts came out, they were the most modern concepts in American cars.

Body types were deployed among the divisions according to their perceptions of customer desires. Chevrolet had the widest range with two- and four-door hatchbacks and a two-door notchback. Pontiac went with a two-door notch and four-door hatch, while more conservative Oldsmobile and Buick opted for formal two- and four-door notchbacks.

The new X-cars were the darlings of the motoring press. “GM blows everybody else into the weeds with new front-drive compacts” trumpeted Car and Driver. Less flamboyant Road & Track said it was “The dawning of a new era at GM,” and concluded that they could “…be the best cars from Detroit yet.” Motor Trend made it their Car of the Year.

The X-car proved to have sparkling performance, especially when fitted with the V-6 and manual transmission. Car and Driver (5/79) recorded a 0-to-96 km/h (60 mph) time of 9.2 seconds and a top speed of 161 km/h (100 mph), while Road & Track (5/79) reported a 0-to-96 (60) of 9.6, and a top speed of 174 km/h (108 mph).

Over-all fuel consumption was found to be in the 24 to 30 mpg range, depending on engine and transmission. Both magazines tested Citation X11s, Chevrolet’s sporty version of the X-car.

Alas, what should have been one of GM’s finest hours soon began to lose a little of its lustre. Despite an expenditure of U.S.$3 billion in development, and what Chevrolet advertised as “The most thoroughly tested car in Chevy history,” flaws appeared. There were reports of poor build and paint quality, and reliability problems. In the first year the X-cars had seven safety-related recalls, and premature rear brake lock-up would be a constant concern. Some customers began to wonder whether GM was using them to do its testing.

The X-cars gradually improved over the years until they became quite reliable, but the initial damage to their reputation was never totally overcome. GM seemed to lose interest in developing them, preferring instead to concentrate on the new, more successful A-body cars such as the Chevrolet Celebrity and Buick Century that it spun off the X-car platform.

Oldsmobile and Pontiac discontinued their X-cars in 1984, while Buick and Chevrolet held on until ’85. In spite of a halting start, more than a million and a half X-cars were sold.

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